The Language of Loopholes
With budget talks in full swing, we’re once again treated to a recurring spectacle in American political theater. As we expect from, like, every other budget talk ever, Republicans are all about cutting spending and Democrats are concerned about maintaining existing government programs. And we also get to watch in suspense as both parties seem close to an agreement that eventually falls through. Case in point: apparently, in a secret meeting last weekend with Rep. John Boehner (which in my imagination started something like this), President Obama offered to put a bunch of programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security on the chopping block in return for tax overhaul. Then like two days later coy Boehner decided that he didn’t much like that idea.
Like I said, all this is typical budget talk behavior, but it got me thinking about the idea of tax reform, and more specifically it’s buzzword-ified counterpart, “tax loophole.” It seems like an issue where progressives and conservatives can find common ground; as majority leader Rep. Eric Cantor is quoted as saying in that first Times article I linked to above, “if the president wants to talk loopholes, we’ll be glad to talk loopholes.” And I don’t doubt him one bit. Particularly because the word “loophole” implies that someone can get away with something they shouldn’t. “Closing tax loopholes” is evocative in a way that a similar phrase that means basically the same thing, something like “making stricter tax laws,” isn’t. But depending on who you’re talking to, that “something” that “loopholes” allow people to get away with can evoke sentiments that gel nicely with either conservative or progressive ideology.
You see, if there’s one thing conservatives really get angry about, it’s individuals exploiting “the system.” You need look no further than conservative arguments for tort and welfare reform, and against amnesty for illegal aliens, for further examples of this. Thinking in terms of “tax loopholes” can make us think about individuals taking advantage of the government, which is a rhetorical figure used in conservative arguments against all sorts of other things.
But like I said, it’s not just conservatives who benefit from the “loophole” analogy. It can evoke liberal ideology just as well, and for sort of similar reasons. Traditional progressive support for programs like government-sponsored healthcare and opposition to privatization of social programs imply that progressives think that taxes are spent on important things. If that’s the case, then “loopholes” allow people with the means to help others by paying into these programs to avoid doing so.
In both cases, the analogy taps in to fears about the relationship between the individual and the government. Looking at conservative stances on other issues, like I said, it seems fair to say that it’s a big concern of theirs that individuals might end up exploiting the government and getting something they don’t deserve. Likewise, it seems fair to say that liberals are worried about individuals not doing their fair share to help others.
The words and phrases that people of all political stripes widely use to talk about things often tie in with their ideologies in ways that aren’t immediately obvious, but what’s interesting about the “tax loophole” phrase is that it can evoke widely different ideological sentiments. Which is probably why we hear it a lot whenever budget issues come up. But what do you, our oft-silent readers think? The magic of the internet allows us to track how many of you look at our site, so we know you’re out there. So speak up and tell me, does the phrase’s broad appeal ultimately make it empty, or is it an example of how carefully chosen language can unite people of different political persuasions on an issue? Feel free to discuss this, or anything else, amongst yourselves in the comments section. Really, go ahead. You click the “comment” link, and then you can Say Anything. See what I did there?
If you want to know more:
- In “The Second Persona,” Edwin Black comments on how whole aspects of ideologies can be implied in simple phrases that gain currency among a group. What’s interesting here is that, as I said, you can see both progressive and conservative ideologies implied in the phrase “tax loophole.”
- Then again, in “Text, Context, and the Fragmentation of Contemporary Culture,” Michael McGee argues that contemporary public rhetoric is such that we bring our own ideologies to bear on what we’re exposed to, filling in the blanks in the “fragments” we are presented with.
- Apparently, setting that whole Lloyd Dobler-with-boombox scene to different music is, like, a thing. Most of them are really dumb, but this one is pretty excellent. It’s a tad NSFW.